Since this COVID-19 crisis started in March, I have been meeting with about 50 A&E leaders every Monday to discuss the new challenges they are facing in their businesses. I am thrilled at the level of participation, sharing and collaboration taking place in this group of small, medium and large firms from across the U.S. and Canada.
It is interesting to see the progression from Week One when we were all still in shock and most leaders were grappling with the technology and communication challenges of running their firms from their employees’ homes. Surprisingly, most firms report they are adapting well and the move to home has even had some benefits that they hope will carry forward into the future.
As the weeks progressed, different challenges were the primary focus of discussion including the PPP applications and banking issues, construction site closures as well as the myriad of new local, state and federal government guidelines, recommendations and regulations.
We are now in week 8 of the crisis and the discussions are turning to these ten key areas that firm leaders are working on solving. All leaders agree that the uncertainty surrounding their projects is the biggest challenge. Here are ten topics consuming most A&E Executive teams in week 8 of this crisis:
1. Return to Work
Pretty much all firms are grappling with the complexity of getting employees to come back to the office. Many changes will need to take place to ensure the health and safety of staff. Firms will have to reconfigure office space for social distancing. Managing employees’ fear of coming back to the office will be a new challenge. And complying with government regulations will be an ongoing effort. The return to work will be a lot more difficult than it was to move employees’ home. Check out this article – How to Plan a Safe and Healthy Return to Work.
2. Long Term Health and Safety
Beyond getting employees back to work there are long-term considerations for running the business including dealing with the changing economic environment, travel, and running projects with the virus still a threat. Concerns over availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other health related items are making it more difficult to create a solid plan.
3. Postponed Projects
Many firms are seeing projects postponed or even cancelled. Some report 25% to 50% reductions in work and have had to do layoffs. For firms working in the oil & gas, education, hospitality and commercial office sectors, they are concerned about long-term changes that may affect revenues. They have also been impacted by shutdowns in construction in the states they work. Other firms are actually busier than ever and still hiring. There is a strong interest in diversification to make up for poorly performing sectors.
4. Dealing with Employee Fears
As firms are surveying employees about their productivity and feelings about working at home, they have discovered that many employees are struggling mentally and have fears about coming back to the office. Every employee has a different situation at home, and it will be impossible to try and impose the same policies on everyone. From staff that have kids at home, to others with health risks or live with elderly parents, it will be important to be flexible and possibly have 25% to 50% of your workforce working at home part-time or permanently. Many employees are craving social interaction. The anxiety from home-schooling kids and fearing for thier health may reduce employee productivity. Motivation to follow new company social distancing guidelines may also be a challenge.
5. Large PTO Balances
Many firms are seeing utilization rising and one reason is that no one is taking PTO right now. This is becoming a big problem as many firms are accruing large liabilities that they may have to pay out at year end. Some firms are limiting accrual hours to control this. This might be a good time to encourage employees to take PTO to manage the potential year-end liability.
6. AR Collections Slowing
From day one most leaders have been focused on cash flow and collections. Many are starting to see a slowdown now even if their work hasn’t slowed down at all. Clients are holding on to their money longer and consistent attention on collections is needed to ensure receivables are not getting too old. One leader reported that his collections have improved as project managers (PMs) are more concerned about their jobs and giving more attention to collections. This is the time to keep your foot on the pedal and ensure AR does not get beyond the 90–day mark.
7. Concerns about Drop-Off of Backlog in the Fall
For those firms that are still very busy, many have reported they are concerned about new work coming in and the impact in the Fall or early next year. For those firms that have been hit hard already, many are pivoting to provide new services that are still in high demand, such as environmental firms offering specialized disinfectant cleaning services. With most of our strategic plans out the door, it is important to have more scrutiny on key performance indicators (KPIs) and develop best and worse-case scenarios to remain nimble depending on changing conditions. Staying in close touch with clients is a key strategy to minimize surprises and identify opportunities to help clients with new and changing problems.
8. State and Local Government Revenue Shortages and their Impact on Work
many A&E firms have a large part of their revenue coming from state and local governments who are seeing huge revenue shortfalls due to huge unemployment claims, increased healthcare costs and reduced sales and income taxes. Aside from counting on a big stimulus package this fall, those dependent on state and local projects are looking for ways to pivot their services. This is probably one of the areas of greatest uncertainty – how will the federal government help the states out?
9. Drop of Oil Prices and Impact on Revenue
Because of reduced travel and demand for oil and gas, those A&E firms supporting this industry are hurting badly. While some hospitality is likely to come back, the impact on consultants supporting oil and gas clients may take much longer to rebound. These firms are also looking for ways to adapt their services to other markets, however they may have a more difficult recovery. While PPP loans are helping employers keep their staff employed through July, there is less optimism for the months following.
10. Company Culture
With all the change going on and the lack of personal connection with employees, many leaders are concerned about their company culture remaining strong. Lots of creative methods are being used to keep employees connected to the company including Zoom lunches and happy hours, CEOs “checking-in” one on one with every employee and frequent “huddles” each day. Employees can be a great resource for ideas. Engage employees to come up with create ways to sustain and bolster your company culture.
At week 8 of this crisis, we are all still living in a strange reality that we pray will end soon. It is up to firm leaders to set the tone of company communication to manage the fears and realities of today’s situation, and help employees stay positive and productive. Over-communication and transparency will go a long way to maintaining the trust of your teams and ensure that daily news and social media do not negatively impact your business results.
If you would like to join our AEC Crisis Roundtable discussion on Mondays, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and request to join. Please let me know how I can help you and your firm thrive and prosper in the midst of all the change and uncertainty.
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